Toxic behaviour at work and how to end it

Hurtful comments, racist remarks, dirty jokes, unacceptable managerial attitudes, dreading coming to work, but also day-to-day behaviour that is unintentionally hurtful. 240 of you attended the roundtable...

Hurtful comments, racist remarks, dirty jokes, unacceptable managerial attitudes, dreading coming to work, but also day-to-day behaviour that is unintentionally hurtful. 240 of you attended the roundtable on toxic behaviour organised by the Staff Association on 22 June 2021 to discuss these issues with two experts – Lisa Bell and Bruno Lefebvre – who answered your questions and shared their insights into fighting this type of behaviour in the work place. 

Defining toxic behaviour 

Bruno: There are several ways of defining toxic behaviour, but one of the requirements for understanding the concept is to distinguish between intention and effect. For behaviour to be defined as toxic, there does not necessarily need to be a negative intention from the start. Sometimes we can even see a positive intention – for example, a desire to save time, to be efficient or effective. It is therefore essential to look at the effects on health (coming to work with a knot in your stomach) and performance. Some people can, through their behaviour, wreck performance and hurt others, without any intention of doing so; their behaviour is therefore toxic, because of the effect it has on others.
Lisa: There is a sign that we call micro-questions – the little conversations that take place at work and the comments that are driven by mere curiosity, but which can, by accumulating, have a significant impact on colleagues. Also, I would add bullying in the category of toxic behaviours because it is very different from harassment. Bullying, consisting of a series of cumulative incidents, tends to be particularly harmful to the victim. Every time an employee comes to me and says “it may seem small” or “it may sound silly, but…” – it means to me that there is something wrong.

What can you do if you are a victim of toxic behaviour? 

Lisa: If you feel like you’re experiencing micro-aggressions, unwanted or bullied – the first thing I would do would be have a conversation with that person. I recognize that this is easier said than done, but I truly believe that the majority of people do not come to work with the intention of antagonizing others. Before starting this conversation, one must, of course, ask for the agreement of the other to listen to this feedback. It may be the result of their behaviour, but, in general, the intention is not to upset someone.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to, you can find someone to discuss your experience with and figure out with them what would be the best way to approach the problem. In some cases, you may not be the best person to give feedback-someone who has, for example, an internal social authority (not necessarily a manager), could do it.
Depending on cultural differences, the dynamism and the functioning of the teams, having a conversation does not always make people feel comfortable. However, after the dialogue, the reaction is often to admit that there was no bad intention. It is also useful to do preventive work, like today’s session, before incidents happen – to explain what is acceptable and what is not.

Bruno: If victims of toxic behaviour do not speak up, they will allow the behaviour to proliferate. While it is sometimes dangerous to speak up, it is even more dangerous not to do so. There is a psychological mechanism called denial, when the inclinations of the person who is behaving in a toxic manner are tied to his or her positive intentions; he or she is therefore unaware of the unfortunate consequences of his or her behaviour, which prevents him or her from questioning himself or herself.

Traditionally, we refer to toxic behaviour as something that hurts the other person, because it is intrusive, discriminating or racist for example – but we can have another viewpoint, which is that it is something that wrecks performance. Let me give an example: perfectionism. Is perfectionism toxic behaviour? The answer is probably “it depends”. The person who submits his work late because he needs to check that there are no mistakes and to scrutinise everything in order to reassure himself – could he have a toxic effect on others? Because he is late, other people have less time to do their work and so they will be affected. Toxic behaviour is not just about being susceptible to being hurt – it is also about performance being undermined or wrecked. Another example is people who are not focussed, who talk for a very long time and so do not give others time or the opportunity to speak.

How can you encourage victims to speak up? 

Lisa: There are a lot of reasons not to say anything, aren’t there? We could make a whole list of them. Will it influence my career? What is the impact on the work that is given to me? Will it damage my reputation? I encourage anyone to make a list and mark on the one hand the reasons for speaking, and on the other what can happen if nothing is said. Closing your eyes helps build an apathetic work environment where the toxic behaviour of some people becomes acceptable, normal.

Sometimes, expressing what you feel may seem aggressive, but it does not have to be the case. It can be quite a participatory conversation.

My advice would be to:

  • Practice conversation beforehand and prepare what you need to say.
  • If you are speaking, make sure that it is a good time and that the people you are talking to are in an environment that is conducive to listening to you. Talking to someone who doesn’t listen to you makes no sense – that person must first be ready to hear you.
  • Your feedback should be concise by explaining things step by step.
  • If necessary, find another person to speak for you.
  • Think about the result you want to achieve, and then prepare a plan to achieve it.

How to react if you witness toxic behaviour? 

Lisa: There are four possibilities:
1. If you act directly (for example, in a conversation that becomes unacceptable), have a few simple sentences in advance ready to be used – so in this situation, you no longer have to think about what you should say. For example, “You shouldn’t say that” or “It’s not ok.”

2. You can go to the victim later and ask first if she is okay, if you can help her and decide together what you could do. It’s never too late to help someone.

3. If you feel uncomfortable during a discussion, but direct intervention could make the situation
worse, you can help the victim indirectly, by changing the subject of the conversation.

4. Delegate – get help. In some situations, it is not up to you to intervene, especially if you have
reacted before and nothing has changed.

Bruno: I would just like to add that, on this issue of providing feedback, another factor is important, which is the emotions that we will feel. There will generally be two kinds of emotion:

  • Fear – of what will happen if we speak out, fear that the person in question will take it badly, fear that it will have a negative impact on our career. The thing with fear is that it feeds on itself. The more scared we are, the less we think straight, so it’s an initial emotion that we have to be able to work through, as Lisa suggests, by weighing things up: what will happen if I talk about it, what will happen if I don’t talk about it; and you must to take time to think about it.
  • Sometimes fear is followed by anger – if you don’t say anything and keep it all in, then you suddenly explode. The risk is that you will then aggressively accuse someone of being aggressive, or rudely accuse someone of being rude. Obviously, this will make it difficult to get your message across.

You really need to work through these emotions in order to have a solid conviction, and to be both frank and sensitive. Imagine that you were demonstrating the same behaviour that you are accusing the other person of – how would you like to be told about it?

Can you react without telling the victim or against the victim’s wishes?

Lisa: If it’s more of a micro-behaviour, I wouldn’t act if the victim doesn’t want it, but you have every right to speak or express your opinion to the person who’s behaving – say, for example, “This is an observation on my part, I think this type of behaviour could have a negative impact on that person.” You say how it made you uncomfortable. So, as a witness, you don’t necessarily need to involve the victim. It may not even be helpful to make the situation any more important than it is.

Studies show that the most effective way to prevent toxic behaviours are micro-conversations – very simple sentences or statements, for example “It’s too much”, “Don’t do that”, “It’s not acceptable”, “You’ve gone too far”, “You can’t say that”.

What can you do if middle managers are not trained to manage inter-personal relationships within their teams and it is complicated, as a junior employee, to express a view without risking reprisals?

Lisa: It’s a conversation I have frequently with my clients – do your managers manage? Often, people become leaders because they work well in their field, not because they work well with people.

It is very important that managers understand the concept of psychological safety-the building of trusting relationships between the employee and the employer. A search was conducted at Google to study the best performing teams, in order to understand the key to their success. All these teams had a high level of psychological safety. They talked about the right to be creative, to find solutions, but also to be able to make mistakes without fear of having their hand cut off afterwards – they feel safe in the relationship with their manager.

It’s an exercise that everyone could do: take a piece of paper, mark your name in the middle, write down all your working relationships by identifying those where you have psychological safety and those where you don’t. Then think about how to get it.

Bruno: For me, it’s also a question of governance – there are Organisations where feedback is the rule, where the hierarchical structure is fairly flat and you can, as a junior, go and speak to a senior without difficulty. Then there are Organisations where there are many levels of hierarchy. When you are at the bottom of the ladder, it is difficult to go to someone at the top and criticise them. You have to be very brave, even foolhardy! Sometimes you need a third party – you have the Staff Association, you have the Head of Ethics , you have HRM, who also need to intervene on these issues. In some cases, it is important to bring together several people to talk to someone in a high position as, all alone, even if you are both frank and sensitive, you risk being brushed aside.

Organisations where the only way for an expert to progress is by becoming a manager are a recipe for disaster. The solution that works much better is to empower experts in such a way that they can grow in their expertise, without being forced to become managers in order to have career progression.

Some managers do not have the ability to manage teams, or the time to learn how to, because the focus of their work is their area of expertise, not management.

Lisa: It’s a challenge in a lot of organizations. I have observed a recent trend of micro-learning (even via online training) in order to achieve positive behaviours – for example on active listening or performance management. Some Organizations conduct listening exercises in small groups of different employee profiles. We can organize surveys to get feedback from the teams to be managed.

Often, we take the trainings because we have to do it, but they have to be really part of the culture and the environment in which we work. It can become a good habit.

How to prevent toxic behaviour? 

Bruno: Preventing toxic behaviour is very much linked to the way in which it is defined in a given Organisation. Let me give an example: open spaces. What is good behaviour in an open space? If your colleague’s phone rings and they are not there, should you take the call for them or not? Talking loudly – is it toxic behaviour or is it not so bad? For all these “grey areas” – and they are perhaps the most common – it is important to define within a given social body what is toxic and what is not. It is part of the manager’s role to see with his or her team where the white lines are, what the rules are, and what constitutes “good behaviour”. This way of proceeding is more virtuous than having only a remedial approach where we are asking ourselves how to say things in a frank and delicate manner or how to work through our fear and anger.

How can we know if we ourselves are unknowingly acting as vectors of toxic behaviour?

Bruno: I often joke that the first sign of toxic behaviour is thinking that other people are behaving toxically, whereas you are completely blameless! You can have a positive intention and not realise the impact it has on another person. The more you place yourself in the role of victim, the less you question your own behaviour or responsibility. It is almost a philosophical question – a bit like in a conflict – the problem is not the other person’s opinion, the problem is the irreconcilable gap between the two opinions and the refusal to accept the other’s view.

Lisa: I always invite you to take ownership of a situation and take some of the responsibility for it. We’re all human, we all tend to be defensive. It is important to understand the different perspectives and look for feedback on our own behaviour.

When I organize sessions with people I coach, I ask them to say three things they would like to stop doing, three things they should start doing and three things they should continue to do. Colleagues can also be asked whether they agree with our analysis. You have to do work on yourself, your behaviours and this will help your career.

What can you do if you are prepared to work on yourself, but are faced with line managers who never do so and refuse to listen to criticism? 

Bruno: Self-examination must be a collective effort. The fact that you are working on yourself does not absolve the other person of their responsibility. Sometimes the temptation is also to show the other person that they are wrong. The more you try to show them that they are wrong, the more likely they are to demonstrate to you in return that they are right.

There is a little trick to communicating successfully, which is that you should not try too hard to convince the other person, as this can have the effect of reinforcing his or her defence mechanism. Rather you can try to ask questions such as “What comments did you observe?” or “Did it have the desired consequences?”. Then there should be a group discussion. In order to remove protective mechanisms, it is important to discuss what is effective in the way we work together.

It is often the case that people are made managers because they are experts. Experts are people who know. Managers are not people who know – managers have doubts, they ponder, they ask questions, they observe. When you are a manager, you need to let go of the mindset of an expert who knows everything. Otherwise, during feedback, you end up defending yourself to avoid being taken for someone who does not know. Being a manager means being someone who thinks rather than someone who knows.

Some complaints of inappropriate behaviour are not resolved quickly enough or are resolved by moving the victim within the Organisation, without knowing whether measures are being taken to punish the perpetrator.

Bruno: Here we are more concerned with organisational considerations. There are several aspects:

  1. Define toxic behaviour in the Organisation – what is to be encouraged and what is unacceptable?
  2. HRM must have authority. If HRM is just a support function with no authority to punish then yes, rules can be established but rules without sanctions are meaningless.
  3. Sometimes, toxic behaviour is displayed by people who have expertise, a network, and support,
    which means that they have a sense of impunity and feel that they can indulge in toxic behaviour, and are sometimes even fully aware of doing so. The victims will be moved rather than the perpetrators. In these situations, it is the responsibility of the Staff Association, senior management and HRM to take action – you as an individual cannot do anything, apart from blow the whistle of course.

Sometimes I work with managers and ask them these questions: do you prefer to save money in the short term and have it cost you in the medium term, or the other way round? In the short term, it seems that toxic behaviour is not a problem, because the managers in question are competent and are a benefit to the organisation, but in the medium term, their behaviour does a huge amount of damage. The awareness must be there.

I think you have to assume that managers are generally level headed: they will adapt their behaviour according to what is expected of them, and what they think is effective. If their own management has no expectations at all on the way in which they manage their teams, but on the contrary focusses expectations on meeting deadlines, launching projects, generating results, etc., then they will adapt their actions to these expectations and neglect the people aspects.

Does toxic behaviour represent a reputation risk for the Organisation?

Lisa: Yes, I see it a lot with my clients. I created my consultancy precisely to be able to work on prevention. Often customers call us when it is already too late, just before the problem appears in the press. Things are dealt with downstream, whereas they could have been dealt with upstream.
Moreover, just because we are doing good preventive work upstream does not mean that there will not be any problems, but you will probably have fewer serious problems. If we talk about the spectrum of sexual harassment for example, you have an assault at one end, and an inappropriate comment at the other.

If we do the prevention work to stop inappropriate comments, there is little chance of assaults occurring happening. On the other hand, if we allow obscene jokes, sexual comments, sexist behaviours – at one point, the situation escalates because we have already moved the cursor of which is acceptable. If you set the limit at the very beginning, you will be less likely to fall in more serious accidents.

Bruno: Senior managers are judged on their actions more than on their communication. Prevention is based on a simple idea: an employee who feels safe in an environment will be more productive, more effective and more creative than an employee who is afraid. A strong performer who is treated badly will leave the Organisation or tell his/her friends, or even talk to the press.

There is a very simple way for leaders to engage properly in preventing toxic behaviour, which is to punish the perpetrators of toxic behaviour. There are always people who are known to engage in inappropriate behaviour and who keep their position because they have a skill, a network, or because the Organisation has a good reason to grant them some form of immunity. If this type of “untouchable” person is punished, then it sends a clear message to everyone else.